Sometimes it’s hard to see progress
A few months a go I was driving my girlfriend crazy. I felt like I was accomplishing nothing. I was working hard than ever and I had nothing to show for it. Or so I thought. I felt like I was putting in the work but I had nothing to show for it. The truth was I couldn’t see it. I’ve always believed that big results come from committing to long term progress. But, I was like the frog in the boiling water, when the wins are small sometimes it’s hard to see the results over time.
For years I’ve struggled with getting my projects off the ground. I’d feel motivated by an idea, only to loose steam after a few days. It would sit forever on the back burner. Getting no closer to completion. I’ve been fortunate to always have a career that’s granted me a lot of free time. I always thought that I’d use that free time for amazing things, but instead I often wasted the time away. I end up feeling guilty and bored.
I wasn’t committed to the process. I wanted over night results. Over night results aren’t over night at all though, they are years of consistent effort. My passionate beginnings were unsustainable over the long term. A furious blitz of activity that made me feel good but actually got me no closer to my goals. To achieve big goals you must commit to small steps forward. Focus energy on the pursuit of the next step, not wasted on trying to create giant leaps at once.
“Moving forward , one step at a time . Subordinate strength to the process . Replace fear with the process . Depend on it . Lean on it . Trust in it”
Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is The Way
Process is what allows you to achieve. It forces action. If you’ve ever felt like you couldn’t tackle a dream because of its size - you are in good company. Looking at the big picture can be a dangerous lure that overwhelms you. Ask ‘what is the next step I can take right now towards what I want?’, you break goals into achievable chunks. Process is also what keeps you going long after the initial passion for project has faded. It is more than taking action, it is committing to taking those actions over the long term.
It’s amazing to think about the compounding effects of a dedication to good process. If you took three steps towards your dream every single day, where would you be in a month?, a year?, a decade? Results are not the actions you take, but how long you keep taking those actions for.
Success = Number of Steps Forwards * Time Applied
Not all progress has a visible result. I always view progress as a invisible process, made visible at critical moments. It is like a new mountain pushing up from the ocean floor, only creating new land after millions of years. If you don’t look below the surface, you’d think nothing was happening. The same is true in our lives. Measure what happens below the surface, and your growth will motivate you. If you only measure what you see, you’ll get discouraged.
Our most important personal goals are also the hardest to track. The measure of our kindness, the goodness of our soul, our humility. You can’t stand on the scale in the morning and read that you lived well and in accordance to your values. You can’t ‘achieve’ essential values, their work is never finished. The character of your soul is not what you achieve, but what you decide in the many small challenges of life. It is not possible to ‘balance the scales’, to be kind you must be kind daily. To be fair, you must always be fair. One act against your values, and all the work is undone.
There are small wins every day that we ignore. Maintenance tasks don’t feel like wins. You aren’t going to win any awards for cleaning the kitchen, but you must do it. When you do something that takes you towards the best version of yourself, celebrate it. By being present with these small wins you find a greater sense of contentment. Celebrate the trivial. Celebrate the little actions that maintain the right environment for good work. I don’t like taking the bins out, but I will celebrate that I did. By doing something I don’t like to do, because I should, I conquer myself and become stronger because of it.
For the last few months I’ve kept a small journal on me at all times. Every day, I write the date and underline it. I don’t start a new page, as I want the information to be dense. (this is important for the review process). Every time I do anything that feels like a step in the right direction, I write it down. The requirements are loose by design. It’s up to you to define what is a step in the right direction. Remember though that this log is for you, so write down the things that you wouldn’t tell anyone else. It’s a chance also to celebrate the private battles in life that aren’t always easy to share.
Since I started, it has become a driving force for happiness and achievement in my life. What started as a simple way to track what I did each day, has turned into a powerful tool.
The benefits of momentum are are well documented when it comes productivity. The act of writing down each small step encourages the writing down of more steps shortly after. It also generates daily momentum. There is positive pressure to keep the log going, and have never skipped a day. I aim to have at least 3 things each day in the log, and average around 8 to 12 items. It has allowed me to develop a new ability for me - finishing things. It can be very motivating to look at a project and know that as long as I keep putting in log entries, I will finish it.
Defining the Task
Tasks that are nebulous are often tasks that don’t get completed. The log entry must be a a discrete, small step forward. ‘Write’ is a bad task. It’s easy to identify what bad tasks are when you mentally translate them to what you would like to write in the log. I wouldn’t want to write ‘I wrote today.’ in the log. It’s uncomfortable. ‘Completed the first draft of article on time keeping’ is much better. Work should be well defined. It’s important to understand what you are sitting down to do, and what the finish line is. If you are procrastinating on a project, define a small step forward you can take right now. Then execute on it. Be clear in what you are sitting down to achieve.
I review the notebook on a regular basis. I struggle with seeing progress I’ve made, and I always feel as if I haven’t done enough. Sometimes I get so down-trodden about this that I freeze, and can’t complete any work at all. This is why I don’t start a new page, I often flick through the pages. I don’t even read them. I observe filled page after filled page, reminding myself that I am moving forwards.
A fun activity can be too flick back a couple of weeks and look at the wins of any particular day. It shows how tasks that felt like wins a few weeks ago - are now routine. It’s a reminder of how you skills have improved, but it’s also a reminder that those things are still wins. They might have become second nature but they still represent a step forward every time you do them.
There are many small wins in life. By writing them down in this way you generate a positive feedback loop. This causes you to take more of those actions. Many of us are guilty of neglecting the things that matter to us because of the pressure of our work. It should set alarm bells ringing if areas of your life are absent from the log. Now you are able to course correct, and maintain balance.
The Book of Steps
In a way, the sum of your life is no more than the tiny steps forward you make each day. What you decide to step towards, defines you. By making the writing of our steps down a daily practice, we become mindful of where we are walking towards. We do not stumble down bad paths nor forget good ones. Thinking about how we define these steps forces a critical awareness of what it is we are trying to achieve.
Start writing your own Book of Steps.